Ancient Rome

The Red Sea Rout and India’s Pivotal Role in Ancient Trade

India’s unique tropical climate fostered the production of spices unavailable in the temperate climates of the Mediterranean and Western Europe, making it an essential hub in the ancient global economy. Even the Roman Empire, a force to be reckoned with, recognized India’s significance, with Pliny the Elder noting India’s vast population and influence. Trade between…

The Red Sea Rout and India's Pivotal Role in Ancient Trade

India’s unique tropical climate fostered the production of spices unavailable in the temperate climates of the Mediterranean and Western Europe, making it an essential hub in the ancient global economy. Even the Roman Empire, a force to be reckoned with, recognized India’s significance, with Pliny the Elder noting India’s vast population and influence.

Trade between East and West dates back to antiquity, as Egyptian Pharaohs sought the precious incense of the mysterious land of Punt. Incense, vital for religious rituals, including mummification, often reached Egypt via African intermediaries from Somalia. Disruptions, however, forced the Pharaohs to establish direct maritime trade routes. Queen Hatshepsut’s temple-tomb provides compelling evidence of these early expeditions (1473-1458 BC), showcasing her establishment of a Red Sea base and the dispatch of Egyptian ships laden with frankincense upon their return.

In the sixth century BC, Persia’s conquest of Egypt under Cambyses II led to his successor, Darius the Great, extending Persian rule into northern India in 520 BC. The gold of the region bolstered the empire’s treasury, with Herodotus noting India’s substantial tribute contributions.

Upon reaching the Indus River, the Persians’ observations of crocodiles akin to those of the Nile sparked Darius’s curiosity about a potential shared origin and a connecting waterway. He commissioned a voyage led by Scylax, with Greek and Phoenician sailors and Persian guards, to explore this possibility. While adept in the Mediterranean, the Greeks were less familiar with the vast Indian Ocean; its perils and the unfamiliarity of Indian culture likely evoked Homeric imagery.

Despite navigating 2000 miles of the Indus, monsoon winds hindered their westward voyage. Nevertheless, they charted a route around Arabia and into Egypt, a journey of almost thirty months. Scylax’s detailed account of the Indus River civilizations later influenced Aristotle, who would become Alexander the Great’s tutor.

India’s unique tropical climate fostered the production of spices unavailable in the temperate climates of the Mediterranean and Western Europe, making it an essential hub in the ancient global economy. Even the Roman Empire, a force to be reckoned with, recognized India’s significance, with Pliny the Elder noting India’s vast population and influence.

Trade between East and West dates back to antiquity, as Egyptian Pharaohs sought the precious incense of the mysterious land of Punt. Incense, vital for religious rituals, including mummification, often reached Egypt via African intermediaries from Somalia. Disruptions, however, forced the Pharaohs to establish direct maritime trade routes. Queen Hatshepsut’s temple-tomb provides compelling evidence of these early expeditions (1473-1458 BC), showcasing her establishment of a Red Sea base and the dispatch of Egyptian ships laden with frankincense upon their return.

In the sixth century BC, Persia’s conquest of Egypt under Cambyses II led to his successor, Darius the Great, extending Persian rule into northern India in 520 BC. The gold of the region bolstered the empire’s treasury, with Herodotus noting India’s substantial tribute contributions.

Upon reaching the Indus River, the Persians’ observations of crocodiles akin to those of the Nile sparked Darius’s curiosity about a potential shared origin and a connecting waterway. He commissioned a voyage led by Scylax, with Greek and Phoenician sailors and Persian guards, to explore this possibility. While adept in the Mediterranean, the Greeks were less familiar with the vast Indian Ocean; its perils and the unfamiliarity of Indian culture likely evoked Homeric imagery.

Despite navigating 2000 miles of the Indus, monsoon winds hindered their westward voyage. Nevertheless, they charted a route around Arabia and into Egypt, a journey of almost thirty months. Scylax’s detailed account of the Indus River civilizations later influenced Aristotle, who would become Alexander the Great’s tutor.

Alexander the Great’s Campaigns and Encounters in India

Between 334 and 326 BC, Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, decisively conquered the Persian Empire. His expanding dominion led him across the Hindu Kush mountains to the upper Indus River. There, he allied with Taxiles, an Indian king, facilitating the defeat of Porus, a rival ruler. During these battles, the Macedonian forces witnessed the formidable power of Indian war elephants.

War elephants were a terrifying force on ancient battlefields. These massive beasts, weighing approximately five tons, were incredibly resilient due to their thick hides. Guided by a mahout perched on its neck, a furious elephant would charge into enemy lines, trampling and goring soldiers and disrupting formations. Their trumpeting and unfamiliar scent could also sow panic among enemy cavalry horses.

Despite his successes, Alexander’s ambition to push beyond the Hyphasis River (modern-day Beas) was thwarted by his weary Macedonian troops. A mutiny arose, spurred by the intimidating scale of India’s eastern kingdoms. Shifting his focus, Alexander turned towards the Indus River, aiming to emulate the journey of Scylax and reach the ocean. He commissioned a fleet on the Indus and strategically divided his army for exploration.

Upon reaching the ocean, Alexander chose Nearchus, a Greek general, as fleet admiral and placed 20,000 Hellenic soldiers under his command. Their mission: chart a route from the Indus to the Persian Gulf.

Alexander himself led his remaining forces through the unforgiving southern Iranian deserts on their return to Babylonia. Despite the harsh conditions and many casualties, Alexander remained resolute. He made ambitious plans to conquer Arabia and assemble a new fleet in the Persian Gulf. However, in 323 BC, Alexander the Great died unexpectedly from unknown causes, leaving his Arabian campaign unrealized.

Alexander’s successors

Following the fragmentation of Alexander’s empire, his generals established themselves as kings, creating powerful dynasties. Among these, the Ptolemies seized control of Egypt, while the Seleucids consolidated power in Syria and Iran. Recognizing the strategic value of war elephants, both sought to augment their armies with these formidable beasts. However, the Seleucids enjoyed direct access to India’s supply.

Greek engineers sought to enhance the combat capabilities of war elephants through improved armor and the addition of fighting platforms. This armor shielded the mahout from projectiles and protected the elephant’s legs from disabling attacks. Wooden turrets on the animals’ backs could carry up to three soldiers armed with bows, javelins, or pikes.

Keen to bolster their military might, the Ptolemies were resolved to acquire war elephants despite lacking a direct source. They knew of smaller forest elephants in North Africa, but Carthage barred access. Consequently, Ptolemy II Philadelphus commissioned the construction of shipyards and harbors along Egypt’s Red Sea coast in 280 BC. His goal: to locate and secure distant elephant populations.

A Greek port named Arsine was established at the head of the Red Sea (modern Suez), with further harbor towns, Myos Hormos and Berenice, built along the coast. Greek ships were constructed at Arsine and launched from Berenice, exploring the east coast of Africa. These missions at sea could last weeks, with crews of Egyptian sailors and Greek mercenaries tasked with establishing hunting stations in Ethiopia and Somalia. Captured elephants were returned to Egypt on specialized transport ships called elephantegoi.

Navigating the desolate African coast of the Red Sea was a formidable undertaking, and voyages could stretch to a month in duration. Transporting live elephants by ship proved exceptionally challenging. Upon arrival at Berenice, the elephants were offloaded into giant corrals bordered by deep ditches. From here, they began an arduous desert crossing to the Nile River, a journey of two weeks following ancient, dried-up riverbeds. Wells and military stations were established by the Ptolemies along these routes, yet the caravans often traveled at night, seeking shelter from the harsh desert sun by day.

The elephant handlers and guards left inscriptions, attesting to their passage through the desert. One, a man named Sophon, carved his name and a plea to the Greek god Pan for safe travels. His self-identification as an Indos suggests expertise in handling elephants acquired from Indian trainers.

Despite the difficulties, these operations yielded valuable ivory – a byproduct that encouraged continued Ptolemaic efforts, even as the smaller, less potent nature of East African elephants became apparent.

Around 200 BC, the Seleucids lost access to Indian war elephants, diminishing the urgency for the Ptolemies’ costly African ventures. While elephant hunting declined, the Red Sea infrastructure remained, attracting Mediterranean merchants eager to capitalize on trade opportunities. This shift is evidenced by a second-century BC Egyptian papyrus documenting a Greek trading mission to the ‘Incense Land’ (Somalia) involving international investors and bankers.

Seeking to maximize revenue from customs taxes, the Ptolemies safeguarded Red Sea trade routes. When Nabataean pirates plagued Greek merchants, Ptolemaic warships retaliated, destroying their vessels and ports. The Ptolemies maintained a small naval presence in the Red Sea, ensuring the protection of Greek shipping interests.

Sea rout to India

In 118 BC, the Ptolemaic regime encountered a shipwrecked Indian sailor, rescued from the Red Sea. The man’s knowledge of monsoon winds enabled the Greek navigator Eudoxus of Cyzicus to swiftly reach India. This voyage fostered diplomatic relations and a lucrative spice and gem trade between the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Indian rajas.

The discovery of monsoon-driven routes transformed trade between India and the Mediterranean. The lengthy and hazardous journey motivated the development of intermediary trading hubs. Initially, Socotra Island served this purpose. Later, Eudaimon Arabia (present-day Aden) became the primary exchange point, reducing risks and costs associated with the full voyage.

By the mid-first century BC, most Greek vessels terminated their routes at Eudaimon Arabia, mitigating piracy and weather threats. Here, they exchanged goods with eastern merchants transporting Indian commodities. While the number of ships making the complete journey remained limited, this innovation established a crucial commercial bridge between India and the Mediterranean.

Cleopatra’s Fall, Caesarion’s Demise, and the Rise of Roman Egypt

Following Mark Antony’s defeat at Actium in 31 BCE, Queen Cleopatra sought refuge in India with her vast Ptolemaic treasures. Accompanied by Caesarion, her son with Julius Caesar, she aimed to establish a new royal court in the East. However, her plans were thwarted when Nabataean forces, allied with Octavian, ambushed her soldiers and burned her ships, preventing her escape across the Suez Isthmus.

Cleopatra’s last hope for the Ptolemaic dynasty lay in Caesarion, a potential rival to Octavian as Caesar’s heir. She planned his escape to India with royal advisors and a substantial portion of the treasury, perhaps envisioning his eventual return to avenge her and challenge Octavian’s power.

After Antony’s suicide, Cleopatra and her maidservants also chose death rather than suffer Octavian’s planned humiliation. Meanwhile, Caesarion awaited the trade winds at Berenice. Tragically, a treacherous advisor convinced him to return to Alexandria, where Octavian swiftly executed him, asserting that “too many Caesars are not a good thing.”

Octavian’s victory over Cleopatra marked the end of the Hellenistic dynasties established after Alexander the Great’s death. The entire Mediterranean region fell under unified Roman rule, bringing an end to centuries of conflict and civil strife. As supreme commander, Octavian now ruled over an estimated 45 million people.

His immediate focus shifted to securing Egypt and maximizing its economic contributions to the Empire. He employed the Roman army to revitalize Egypt’s infrastructure, repairing canals and securing trade routes. Aelius Gallus, Egypt’s Roman governor, was tasked with rebuilding shipyards at Arsine, aiming to conquer Arabia. A preliminary Roman attack on the port of Eudaimon Arabia (Aden) disrupted trade, pushing Greek and Indian merchants towards alternate ports.

The geographer Strabo, accompanying Gallus on a Nile tour, witnessed the burgeoning trade with India. He noted over 120 Roman ships sailing directly from Egypt to India annually – a dramatic increase from the Ptolemaic era.

Roman Trade and the Eastern Desert

During Roman rule, the Nile city of Coptos was the primary hub for imports from the East. Historians like Strabo and Pliny describe its role as a central market for Arabian and Indian goods. This commercial importance led to the establishment of Roman customs operations within the city to manage taxation and trade personnel.

Approximately twelve days were required to transport cargo from Alexandria to Coptos via the Nile, a nearly 400-mile journey. From Coptos, merchants would join caravans destined for the Red Sea ports of Berenice and Myos Hormos. Myos Hormos, though closer (a seven-day journey), often proved less favorable due to challenging winds in the northern Red Sea. Berenice, further south, offered a longer overland route (twelve days) but faster sailing for ships returning from India.

The Eastern Desert caravan routes were marked by simple cairns. To enhance security, the Romans established fortified stations (phrouroi) and hilltop watchtowers along these routes, facilitating rapid response against bandits. Furthermore, valuable quarries like Mons Porphyrites and Mons Claudianus necessitated the protection of these trade routes to ensure the supply of decorative stone for the Empire’s monumental building projects.

The Eastern Desert also held state-owned emerald and gold mines. This, combined with the need to supply the Red Sea ports, resulted in a complex logistical network. Small, family-run firms managed much of this transport with large caravans of hundreds, even thousands, of camels operating year-round.

The Nicanor Archive of business receipts from Coptos illustrates this commercial system. It details contracts with diverse businesses involving individuals from across the Empire, highlighting the cosmopolitan nature of trade within the Roman world. Inscriptions at Coptos further illuminate this, referencing figures like wealthy businessman Parthenios and the far-traveled Hermeros.

The Nicanor Archive and customs receipts from Berenice provide substantial evidence of Roman citizens engaged in eastern commercial ventures. Wealthy Italian businessmen were prominent, shipping products such as wine across the Indian Ocean. Wine dealers, like Gaius Norbanus, meticulously labeled their shipments for export, using agents like Isidora to streamline the process. Some Romans managed extensive operations, as exemplified by Varus, who controlled multiple cargo ships.

Desert graffiti further attests to Roman involvement in this trade. Gaius Numidius Eros, a Roman citizen, documented his journey from India in 2 BC, with earlier inscriptions suggesting his ongoing business interests. Slaves like Thaliarchus and Laudanes also left their marks, indicating their service to Roman masters involved in this commerce. The Calpurnii, a prominent business family, were recognized in a Mediterranean inscription, reinforcing the reach of Roman trade.

Distinguished Roman women also played significant roles in Indian Ocean trade. Isidora and Olympias, identifying as “matrons, Red Sea ship owners, and merchants,” proudly documented their business success and employed agents like Apolinarios. Their potential citizenship granted by Emperor Hadrian highlights the potential social elevation achievable through trade.

The Roman state actively fostered commercial activity by constructing hydreumata – fortified desert watering stations with cisterns and wells. These stations offered respite from harsh conditions and facilitated the movement of large groups. Pliny details the convenience of these stations, with some accommodating thousands of travelers.

To manage desert traffic, travelers leaving Coptos required a pass, granting access to military-run hydreumata. The Coptos Tariff and ostraca records reveal diverse occupations engaged in these journeys, including sailors, craftsmen, and those involved in shipbuilding. This systematized approach reflects Roman administrative and logistical prowess in supporting commercial expansion.

Evidence of a Private Arms Market in Roman Egypt

Historical records indicate the existence of a private arms market in the city of Coptos, where travelers and their guards could acquire armor and weapons for expeditions to the east. Growing concerns about a potential revolt in southern Egypt prompted the Roman governor, Avilius Flaccus, to take action. In AD 34, he dispatched the officer Bassus to confiscate privately held weapons in Coptos and the Eastern Desert.

The sheer volume of seized weaponry astonished onlookers in Alexandria. Philo, a contemporary observer, wrote of “a great fleet of ships full of every type of weapon” sailing down the Nile. Upon reaching Alexandria, the weapons were transported to the military base at Nicopolis for evaluation. Philo describes the vast quantity of arms, requiring “numerous beasts of burden” and filling “almost all the wagons belonging to the Roman camp.” Bassus meticulously organized the confiscated weapons before transferring them to secure storage at the governor’s palace.

The arms market in Coptos proved resilient, with dealers restocking their supplies once Roman enforcement efforts waned. A second-century AD papyrus letter offers a glimpse into this trade. Concerned about a potential Jewish uprising in Alexandria, a Greek resident named Apollonius sought protective weaponry. He dispatched his subordinate, Hermias, to Coptos to discreetly retrieve items commissioned through a business colleague. Among his acquisitions were a well-crafted, lightweight breastplate of yellow copper, obtained at a favorable price, and an Italian-style sword of exceptional value. While a suitable military-style dagger could not be found within Apollonius’s price range, the transaction underscores the ongoing nature of the arms trade in Coptos.

Berenice and Myos Hormos: Key Ports in Roman-Era Red Sea Trade

Despite its convenient landing sites, Berenice’s harbor suffered from disrepair and challenging weather conditions during the Augustan era. Myos Hormos, with its protected harbor and naval station, was the preferred port for outbound voyages. This port likely accommodated Roman galleys and the large fleet that returned with Gallus from Arabia. Additionally, Myos Hormos was the primary departure point for the Roman merchant ships sailing to India.

Primarily a commercial center, Myos Hormos featured workshops related to ship repair and maintenance, as evidenced by lead sheets and an artificial foreshore constructed from amphorae. Dredging operations to combat silting are suggested by earth mounds. A large, outlying enclosure likely served as a caravanserai for camel caravans.

Berenice, located south of Myos Hormos, was a larger town and a significant administrative center for Roman authorities. Its harbor was restored in the early Imperial period, enabling long-term docking. This, alongside evidence from the Nicanor Archive and increased graffiti, suggests a rise in Berenice’s role in Red Sea trade.

Red Sea voyages required extended stays, necessitating careful cargo assembly. Food provisions for Roman ships included beets, onions, medicines, and notably, quince-flavored honey, likely used for scurvy prevention. The Nicanor Archive indicates increased mercantile activity and shared importance between Berenice and Myos Hormos by the mid-first century AD.

Berenice’s dry climate has preserved fascinating organic evidence: peppercorns, coconut fragments, mung beans, and Amla fruit seeds attest to the vast trade network. Beads from Sri Lanka and East Java further confirm the port’s extensive reach.

Custom passes found at Berenice shed light on trade goods and practices. Merchants obtained pottery tokens at Coptos verifying payment of customs tax, allowing them to load designated goods. Officials in Berenice oversaw a range of cargo, including olive oil, wine, and carefully weighed coin packages (marsippia).

Receipts for Bullion Exports

While custom receipts unearthed at Berenice confirm the export of coins, they provide no indication of their ultimate destination. The term “marsippia” likely denotes small pouches containing meticulously measured and packaged coin groups. Epiphanius theorizes a value of 125 denarii per marsippium, with “double bags” holding 250. Thus, a 320-bag cargo (40,000 denarii) could purchase over 5 tons of frankincense or black pepper.

Marsippia documented in Berenice ostraca detail pre-AD 70 shipments of silver denarii. Five receipts specify consignments of 194-320 marsippia (24,250-40,000 denarii), translating to a currency value of 97,000-160,000 sesterces. This aligns with the Nicanor Archive (AD 62), wherein 3 talents-weight of silver bullion (roughly 25,000 denarii or 100,000+ sesterces) was sent to Myos Hormos. Such sums may have been earmarked for southern Arabia, given reports of significant currency flows in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Pliny also mentions a large silver denarii shipment bound for Arabia.

Three further Berenice receipts detail consignments of 73-120 coin pouches (9,125-15,000 denarii), or about 36,500-60,000 sesterces in silver bullion. Potential destinations include southern Arabia or Indian ports like Barygaza, where the Periplus notes profitable exchange rates for Roman currency, attracting traders to major cities in northern India.

Four Berenice receipts indicate smaller coin shipments: two of 56 and 68 pouches (likely 7,000-8,500 denarii), one of 21 pouches, and the smallest of just five marsippia. Such quantities may have served Roman ships visiting East African ports like Adulis or Somali trade centers, all of which accepted limited amounts of Roman currency. Alternatively, they could have been destined for Tamil cities in southern India, evidenced by large silver denarii hoards discovered in the region.

The Nile canal

Historical records, including those of Herodotus, describe an ancient canal connecting the Nile River to the Suez Gulf. Construction was initiated by Pharaoh Necho II (610-595 BC), but subsequent completion and expansion efforts are attributed to the Persians and the Ptolemaic dynasty. The original canal was large enough to accommodate two trireme war-galleys side-by-side.

Herodotus credits Persian King Darius (522-486 BC) with finishing the canal, though silting hindered its use. Ptolemy Philadelphus (283-246 BC) later widened and deepened the passage, but Pliny suggests these improvements were never fully realized. During Roman times, the canal emptied into the Red Sea near Arsinoe, though usability remained limited due to silt buildup. This likely influenced Aelius Gallus’s decision to build his fleet directly on the Red Sea coast. For much of the first century AD, overland transport of goods through the Eastern Desert and Coptos remained more practical.

The Nile-Suez canal’s fortunes improved under Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117) when restorations allowed direct travel from Alexandria to major Red Sea ports, facilitating passenger journeys to India. Transport via the canal was significantly cheaper than overland routes.

The canal, starting at the trade hub of Babylon (south of modern Cairo), likely encouraged the shipment of bulk staples like grain, wines, and textiles throughout the Roman Empire. Its commercial importance is highlighted by Lucian’s tale of a student who impulsively traveled from Alexandria to India via the Red Sea canal. Lucian’s anecdote also includes a cautionary account about a fraudulent medium, Alexander the Paphlagonian.

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Sophia Dimitriou
Sophia Dimitriou graduated with an M.A. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Thessaloniki. Her writings delve into the daily life and significant events of ancient Greek and Roman societies.

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